COLUMBUS — The Lightning is still holding out hope defenseman Anton Stralman can play on this three-game road trip, which continues tonight against the Blue Jackets.
Stralman's return can't come soon enough for Tampa Bay, which has felt the top-pair defenseman's absence since he was sidelined eight games ago with an upper body injury. The Lightning (13-9-1) has lost two straight and heads into difficult venues in Columbus and St. Louis.
Having Stralman would certainly help.
"Ask Boston what it's like not having (Zdeno) Chara, or ask Chicago what it's like not having (Duncan) Keith," coach Jon Cooper said. "Stralman, Keith and Chara are three completely different defensemen. But they all have the same impact on their team in a positive way. When you lose someone of that nature that plays 22-25 minutes a night, a veteran, calming influence back there, plus a right-hand shot that we're lacking, it affects your team."
Like the beginning of last year's playoffs, the Lightning is grinding it out without Stralman and captain Steven Stamkos, who is out until at least mid March after knee surgery. But overcoming the loss of Stamkos, as great of a player he is, is more manageable than replacing Stralman for one main reason: depth.
The Lightning doesn't have enough of it on its blueline. You can argue that even with Stralman back, Tampa Bay needs to try to acquire another defenseman before March's trade deadline.
As many strides as Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov have made, they shouldn't have to be leaned on as much as they have. Nesterov played more than 21 minutes Sunday for the second time in a week. Slater Koekkoek, with just 26 career NHL games under his belt, has shown flashes but has occasional rough nights like Sunday, when he was a minus-3. Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison are capable veterans, but the Lightning could use another top-four caliber defenseman, specifically a strong puck-mover.
"That is the area that's really in need of improvement," said TSN analyst Craig Button, a former NHL general manager. "They've got (Victor) Hedman and Stralman, but they don't have a really good No. 2 (defenseman) or a really good No. 4. They need the right fit that can link Hedman, Stralman and the group together."
Those type of defensemen are hard to find, and aren't cheap. Think Jacob Trouba, if the Jets defenseman were still available.
And this is not as simple as trying to swapping goalie Ben Bishop for blueline help, although it might come to that at the March trade deadline. As good as Andrei Vasilevskiy has been (6-1, 1.50 goals-against average), you'd still need a reliable partner/backup for him if Bishop is moved. There's still a chance Bishop and Vasilevskiy finish the season as a tandem. Maybe GM Steve Yzerman taps into his forward depth?
With Stamkos out, Tyler Johnson has elevated his game; his six-game points streak was snapped Sunday. Wing Jonathan Drouin had a team-high eight shots Sunday and might be the difference-maker he was without Stamkos in the playoffs last season.
The Lightning could use another difference-maker on the blueline.
NOTE: Forward Erik Condra was reassigned to Syracuse.